In news that shocked absolutely no one — today the NFL launched its first dedicated academy outside of North America. Starting in September 2019 student athletes aged between 16-18 will be given the opportunity to hone their skills as well as their athletic abilities with the chance of playing for NCAA college football scholarships. Of course the official line from the NFL is a little more inspiring:
The NFL Academy is a unique programme that gives aspiring young American football players and outstanding athletes the chance to develop their skills and knowledge of the game. Alongside elite coaching, athletes will study courses of their choice at Barnet and Southgate College. There will also be a character development programme for students to give them all the tools to be successful in whatever pathway they take following the NFL Academy. Athletes will be given access to elite sports training facilities, kit and equipment, as well as an opportunity to learn from players and coaches from the NFL. They will be involved in outreach projects in the local community and be given a pathway for apprenticeships and higher education opportunities (in the UK and US). This life-changing opportunity is available for up to 80 students per year, aged 16-18. Selection for the NFL Academy programme will be based on athletic ability, as well as educational and character assessment.
The high school level programme has been a priority for the NFL ever since it partnered with Tottenham Hotspur, with their state of the art NFL purpose built stadium residing less than 5 miles from Barnet and Southgate College. Yet don’t be fooled by key words such as ‘higher education’ and ‘apprenticeships’. Many have long suspected the move, ourselves included, with the NFL likely setting the foundations for a future franchise based in London. To facilitate the long term success of said potential franchise, Roger Goodell believes it is imperative for a market as large and important as the UK to have home grown talent. Consequently, with several British players having varying degrees of success over the past 10-15 years, due in part to the NFL’s International Player Pathway scheme, the NFL has once again decided to show its hand with where it believes future expansion to be. J
So the NFL’s annual ‘next generation’ showcase has closed for yet another year. In the salary cap era the draft is supposed to be the great ‘eraser’ where GM’s across the league earn their money. Yet despite all the pre draft hype surrounding a number of players your uncle Jimmy had taken in his mock draft basement party, it’s easy to forget most of these rookies likely won’t contribute this year — despite an NFL record 40 draft day trades reflecting the immediate needs of a number of teams. Like every draft there were a number of surprises too; Daniel Jones going to the Giants for the 6th pick was a shocker, and several players with legitimate 1st round talent weren’t taken until day 3. Once again the draft proved one thing — no one outside of those respective war rooms knows a damn thing or what to truly expect, ourselves included. Nevertheless, due to said draft, free agency, veteran experience, strength of coaching and schedule, here are our initial power rankings for the 2019 NFL season. J
The NFL Draft is finally upon us. Tonight 32 college players will have their lives forever changed. Following our original draft predictions, not only have several moves been made (Frank Clark being one), but insider whispers have a number of players rising at the last minute. There will undoubtedly be a number of draft day trades, with teams wishing to move up and down the board. Nevertheless, on the assumption that there will be no trades here are our final first round draft predictions. J
The NFL Schedule will be released at 8PM ET (or 1am here in the UK) on the 17th/18th April. Here we take a look at what is almost always guaranteed and how the schedule organizers might spring a surprise.
Lock: Cowboys vs Giants on SNF
The NFL stunned the football world a year ago when they didn’t schedule Dallas against New York for Week 1 Sunday Night Football, opting for Week 2 instead. The NFL loves to have two of its biggest markets in the spotlight even when they’re both terrible. So even though the Giants are expected to be one of, if not the worst team in the NFL this season, expect them to host Dallas early this autumn.
Shock: more of the Jets
Speaking of New York and prime time games, don’t be surprised to see the green half of the Big Apple appearing under the lights more times in 2019. The Jets had two prime time games last year; in Detroit and in Baker Mayfield’s debut in Cleveland. Whilst they probably won’t threaten the playoffs, offseason acquisitions such as Le’veon Bell and CJ Mosely certainly make New York a more watchable team. Couple that with a second year QB and terrible new uniforms and they’re a dead cert for some prime time action.
Lock: Patriots have favourable bye week position
Now, I’m not suggesting that the Patriots ask the NFL to schedule their bye week between weeks 9-11, typically seen as the best time to have a bye as it is half way through the season, but four of the last five Patriots bye weeks have been in weeks 9-11. Expect nothing different in 2019.
Shock: Patriots play the Chiefs late into the season
Now many people think this is a lock for the opening Sunday Night Football (banner night for New England) as the NFL will want a marquee game to bring in a ratings boost early. However, this will certainly be a game that will have playoff implications and therefore to me seems nonsensical to have so early on the season. KC @ NE was week 1 in 2017 and week 6 in 2018, expect the two meet weeks 12-16 this time around.
Lock: one prime time game for ARI, MIA and TB
I mean, you could make an argument for the Arizona Cardinals to have more than one game under the lights simply because of the league consensus that they will draft Kyler Murray at #1, but other than that they are terrible and won’t threaten the playoffs. The Dolphins are equally terrible and just aren’t entertaining enough to be playing in prime time. Bucs games are more exciting due to their electric offense and woeful defence, but that won’t be enough to force more than a single divisional prime time game.
Shock: Baltimore and Pittsburgh meet in Week 17
For whatever reason, since the NFL introduced the rule that all Week 17 games would be divisional games, one of them has never been Baltimore vs Pittsburgh. Maybe it has been seen as too big a game for the final week with too much at stake, but these two are no longer the best in the AFC North. That title now belongs to the Browns, so it would be fun to see these two battle it out for the AFC’s sixth seed on the final day. Will it happen? Probably not, but it’d still be fun. B
The Greatest TE in modern NFL history calls time on his career
Alas the rumours were true. After 9 seasons in the league Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement from professional football via his official Instagram account today. A giant of the game (quite literally), ‘Gronk’, as he came to be known; was unquestionably one of the most dominant skill position players in modern NFL history. Although plagued by injuries, the former second round draft pick would go on to break single season season records in both total yards (1,327) and touchdowns (17) in just his second season as an NFL starter, whilst hoisting the Lombardi trophy on three occasions. Often targeted by Tom Brady in critical moments, Gronkowski will undoubtedly leave a huge void in the Patriots locker room; one that Bill Belichick will likely have to address in the upcoming draft. In truth it may take multiple players to replace him, as there are only a handful of college TE’s that have demonstrated the ability to be able to create separation in the pass game as well as run block when required. Nevertheless, we at Benny Given Sunday are not only going to miss his ability to regularly maul linebackers/safeties, but we will miss his goofy, often childish like spirit as well. Happy retirement Gronk, you more than earned it. J
When analysing the high profile cases of Aaron Hernandez, Jim Irsay, Ray Rice and the accusation of league wide collusion against Colin Kaepernick after the national anthem protest controversy, one could argue the NFL is no longer viewed as it once was. Said examples, coupled with the number of former players coming forward to claim damages under the NFL’s concussion settlement, have unquestionably hurt ‘America’s Game’, and brought the league into disrepute (at least in the eyes of the casual fan). Although the NFL has made a habit of surviving controversy it has done so without it ever effecting the league’s bottom line. Though viewing figures recovered in 2018, they were at a historical low in 2017 , and it is the NBA, not the NFL, that is the fastest growing professional sports league in North America; with the former projected to surpass the latter in revenue by 2029 (fortune.com).
But are said controversies really to blame?
Sharing is caring, or words to that effect. Yet in the NFL, which operates a hard cap, players are rarely able to achieve the goals that are set in their heavily incentivised contracts. Because of this, and the growing perception of the sport being too violent (high profile figures such as Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman, and Brett Favre have all been vocal in not allowing their kids to play football), those chasing guaranteed dollars are rarely criticised for lacking ambition, or indeed loyalty by both the fans and media alike. After all, why put you or your child’s body through such punishment in the hope of playing for an annual salary of just $860,000 for 3.3 years (the NFL’s median salary in 2018 and league career average respectively), when Boston University found evidence of CTE in 99% of former NFL Players? The short answer is……..you wouldn’t. If you were chasing future sports stardom both the NBA and MLB are more attractive propositions and far better positioned to appeal to kids and their families for all of the above reasons.
Then there is the issue of cultural perception, race and representation. The fallout from the national anthem protests and the ensuing legal fight between Kaepernick and the NFL not only divided the football community, but America as a whole. Consequently, the league has come to mirror the current administration in the hearts and minds of so many, and said fallout has unquestionably hurt the NFL attract, and indeed retain, the type of fan who is perceived to be ‘socially conscious’ and against Trump’s presidency. Indeed, outside of middle America the symbolic nature of the sport as it relates to representing America is still very much of the ‘Friday Night Lights’ variety and a far cry from reality. In 2014 players from Black, Asian/Pacific Islander and non-white Hispanic communities accounted for 72% of all active roster spots, and that figure is unlikely to have changed in 2019. Yet does this figure reflect the number of non-white coaches, general managers and owners? Unfortunately, we all know the answer to that particular question; with the latter acting as a perfect segue to the looming problem of one Robert K. Kraft.
Traumatic brain injury, domestic violence and racial inequality? Yes. But prostitution and human trafficking are two terms the NFL has yet had the pleasure of being associated with. Nevertheless, on the 22nd February one of the more bizarre and shocking stories was about to emerge; the much loved owner of the most successful NFL franchise in recent memory was to face misdemenour charges for ‘soliciting another to commit prostitution’, a charge that stemmed from a human trafficking investigation in South Florida. This from a man known for his class and vast acts of kindness; reflected in his charity work, and campaign for social justice reform in recent months, is not what Jocelyn Moore, the NFL’s Executive Vice President of communications and public affairs, was employed to tackle. Amidst facing the type of high profile issues mentioned in this article the league is likely to come down hard on Mr. Kraft (no pun intended). After all, Roger Goodell is no stranger to punishing the Boston native, fining the Patriots and stripping them of draft picks for their role in 2007’s ‘spy gate’ scandal, and later fighting them all the way to court to uphold Tom Brady’s ban for his perceived role in 2014’s ‘deflate gate’ controversy.
So just what will the NFL do with Mr.Kraft to appease public opinion and help restore trust? He will almost certainly face a lengthy ban and fine. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was banned for six games and fined $500,000 in 2014 when he plead guilty to driving whilst intoxicated. Thus, expect at the very least, the same punishment, though in reality the NFL are likely to be far less forgiving; irrespective of whether Mr. Kraft is found guilty in a court of law. One question that has to be asked is whether he will be forced into selling the Patriots. The NBA was commended for forcing Donald Sterling into selling the Los Angeles Clippers in 2014 for making racist comments, and the NFL similarly ‘guided’ former Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson into selling the franchise when allegations of sexual misconduct at the work place surfaced in 2017. However, as much as the NFL would love to force Mr. Kraft out of the league to gain much needed moral cachet, it is unlikely to do so due to his case coming under the leagues’s Personal Conduct Policy. In reality, expect a season long ban, a record fine and the Patriots to be stripped of opening the NFL season on Thursday Night Football. J
In late 2018 and after much deliberation, B and I both finally decided to share our respective passion for American Football with the world, or at least anyone willing to listen. In truth we had been going back and forth on the idea for quite some time but something was almost always holding us back. We asked ourselves several questions: what if it isn’t a ‘success’ (whatever that means), what will happen if we become too busy to keep on top of our pet project, or better yet what if what we have to share just simply isn’t interesting enough for our fellow gridiron fans? However, over time we began to realise the reason why we decided to go ahead and put ourselves out there for the world to see was two fold. First, B will soon leave home to study Journalism and this site will ultimately serve as a portfolio of sorts for him. Yet more importantly we believe it to be a challenge that we both hope to have fun with.
With regards to my own experience I was first exposed to the game as a teen in 1999 when I had visited family in New Orleans, and all I could think about was the freakish athletic ability of Ricky Williams. I was in awe, yet utterly confused as to why anyone would want to put their body through the level of punishment I had just witnessed. I remember immediately harassing mum to buy me the latest Madden and soon adopted the Patriots as my team because it had ‘England’ in the name (we are both originally from London). B on the other hand had to wait for his big bro to move back into the family home having graduated from university before he was truly exposed to the game. We would religiously watch the Sunday night SKY coverage hosted by ‘my man’, the late and great Kevin Cadle. Coincidentally, B would also choose a team based on a completely irrational observation and would end up a Chief as they play in ‘Arsenal’ red (we are both long suffering Gooners). Although they have had some gut wrenching playoff defeats, having observed Pat Mahomes shred everyone last year I think its safe to say he ultimately chose well.
Talking about ‘Pats’ I was fortunate enough to fulfil a lifelong dream late last year by travelling to Boston to see New England play the Jets and thankfully it was everything I had hoped it would be. From the 10am rally bus full of inebriated Bostonians, to the tailgate like atmosphere in the stadium coupled with the freezing temperatures, it was truly an experience like no other and helped confirm to me why the international series at Wembley, albeit great in its own right, simply cannot replicate that overwhelming home support atmosphere. Nevertheless, with that I leave by saying I hope this is the first of many posts from us and hope you enjoy some of my favourite photos taken from the above trip to Foxborough. J